When it comes to ethically compromised congressmen, Chicago seems to produce a bumper crop. Last Thursday, March 22, the House Ethics Committee released separate reports admonishing Reps. Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez, both Democrats from Chicago districts, for violating House rules concerning outside financial activities of members. The committee ordered Rush (in photo, on left) and Gutierrez (in photo, on right) to pay respective sums of $13,310 and $9,700 to the U.S. Treasury. The investigations were triggered by a probe by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Given the facts, the sanctions appear to be slaps on the wrist. The case of Gutierrez, who is retiring after the current term, is especially disturbing in the context of other conflicts of interest.
Bobby Rush, now in his 13th term, represents the 1st District of Illinois, which covers a large portion of Chicago’s South Side. To many, he is best-known for handing Barack Obama his only defeat at the polls; that would be the 2000 Democratic congressional primary. Obama managed to recover from the experience, winning election as U.S. president eight years later. Rush, an ex-Black Panther, might hang on to his safe seat this November, but it is undeniable that his reputation is now taking a hit.
According to House investigators, Rep. Rush violated House gift rules by occupying office space rent-free for many years in Chicago’s Lake Meadows Shopping Center. He first leased the space in 1989 while still a Chicago alderman. The ethics committee report put it this way: “The landlord stopped asking for payment more than two decades ago, and Representative Rush never considered whether this informal, unstated arrangement was a gift he could not accept.” Rush had used the space as storage for “junk” since 2008. The estimated value of this “impermissible” gift was $13,310.
Congressman Gutierrez, also in his 13th term, represents the heavily Hispanic 4th District of Illinois, located north of downtown Chicago. He is outspoken in his support for open borders, and repeatedly has denounced deportations of persons illegally residing in this country (especially by the Trump administration) as wrong and racially-motivated. This view is related to an accusation by the House Ethics Committee concerning a contract maintained by Rep. Gutierrez during 2003-13 with a communications firm operated by a lobbyist, Doug Scofield, who also happened to be Gutierrez’ former chief of staff.
According to the ethics panel, Scofield during the latter half-dozen years of this period performed legislation-related work well outside the scope of his contract, which included advising the congressman on strategies on immigration. Gutierrez had asked the Committee on House Administration to review the contract at inception; he terminated it following objections by the panel. The ethics committee “found no reason to believe that [Gutierrez] or his office intentionally misused the [office budget] in this case” nor evidence that he benefited personally from “any misuse” of funds. Still, it ordered him to pay $9,700, a figure representing about 3 percent of what was paid by his office under the contract during 2007-13.
That sum is a pittance compared to what Luis Gutierrez, along with his wife, Soriada, pulled in by way of another conflict of interest. Last July, a variety of media outlets reported that the couple had enriched themselves by more than $400,000 from campaign donations. Soriada Gutierrez is not your average congressional wife. Federal Election Commission documents indicate that she began working on her husband’s campaigns in 2010, serving as office manager, treasurer and chief fundraiser. Mrs. Gutierrez alone received over $100,000 during the 2016 election cycle. The couple’s daughters also have worked as bookkeepers for campaign fundraising.
The practice of congressmen hiring family members, whether for the staff or the campaign payroll, is ethically questionable. Unfortunately, it is also legal. That’s because more than 15 years ago, another Chicago-based member of Congress, then-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., persuaded the Congressional Ethics Committee to rule in favor of such arrangements. Fittingly, in February 2013, as National Legal and Policy Center described at length, Jackson pleaded guilty to embezzling about $750,000 in campaign funds, a portion of which he reportedly diverted to the consulting firm of wife Sandi, who was a former Chicago alderwoman, and another person identified as “Co-conspirator 1.” Both he and Mrs. Jackson wound up serving time and are now going through a testy divorce. Rep. Jackson had resigned from Congress a few months prior to his plea.
Corruption such as this isn’t uniquely endemic to Chicago, of course. Indeed, it is very much in the longstanding American tradition of political self-dealing. The House ethics committee has much work ahead. To discourage such behavior, the committee should have set a more forceful example in issuing sanctions against Representatives Rush and Gutierrez.